Boys from County Hell starts as it means to go on, mixing the mundane and the macabre in an opening scene where an ageing Irish couple watching TV have a desultory conversation about the TV show they’re watching (boring) and whether they should pop out to the local pub for a drink instead (no). And then they both start bleeding profusely from the eyes and nose. Cue screaming and opening credits.
The local pub is called The Stoker, after Irish author Bram Stoker, who might well (a current hypothesis suggests) have borrowed heavily from the Irish legend of Abhartach when writing Dracula. It’s the licence writers Chris Baugh (who also directs) and Brendan Mullin use to relocate the entire vampire mythos to Ireland. In all other respects this is a familiar Ireland of lads and larks, craic and gobshitery, the action centring on a foursome of pub rats – Eugene (Jack Rowan), William (Fra Fee), SP (Michael Hough) and William’s girlfriend Claire (Louisa).
There’s a cairn on the land of William’s dad, George (John Lynch), beneath which, so the local legend goes, Abhartach is buried. But the legend is less a warning than a means of having fun at the expense of the rare visiting tourist, and perhaps extracting a drink or two out of them.
Well it wouldn’t be a vampire movie if the beast wasn’t somehow roused, and so it comes to pass that the stones are disturbed while groundwork is being done for a local bypass – Eugene’s dad, Francie (Nigel O’Neill), being the main contractor – and soon people are disappearing, reappearing as unkillable ravening beasts and, eventually, Abhartach himself arrives for some “behold my majesty” freestyling.
The amiable horror movie is a strange hybrid that’s hard to get right. One minute yuks, the next just plain yuk. Boys from County Hell mostly does get it right because it understands when it’s in familiar territory and puts its foot to the floor in scenes done almost in shorthand horror form – here’s where we explain the usefulness (or not) of stakes through the heart, sunshine and so on. Steve Lynch’s score does something similar, at one point actually dropping in the melodramatic “duh duh duuuuuh” as a wink that we know that you know.
Another plus is that Baugh and Mullin keep faith with their original idea of switching comically between the everyday and the supernatural, and they keep it coming, with smalltown Irish attitudes constantly in play. What to do in a moment of crisis? Have a cup of tea, of course.
They are a very likeable bunch, and the actors work well together, with Nigel O’Neill in particular getting a chance to shine as the antsy Francie, vying with his slacker screen son Eugene for title of unlikely hero.
The Irish have a good track record when it comes to inventive smallscale horror movies. Boys from County Hell sits neatly with something like Grabbers, another boozy, craic-filled Irish horror alternating the everday with the out there. Or Shrooms. Or the underrated Stitches. Though the early reference to An American Werewolf in London, and the liberal use of gore, show where Baugh and Mullin’s hearts lie.
All that said, the vampire is a bit of a letdown. Not that he isn’t scary, just that we see too much of him, as if all that expense on dental prosthetics and so on had to have its moment in the… er… sun. And it’s also only in these last climactic scenes where the (surviving) friends finally confront Abhartach that the comedy/horror formula stops working.
I like the bit of trivia on the IMDb telling us that Baugh came up with the story after visiting Bram Stoker’s grave in Golders Green, London, and then spent five days feverishly getting it down, in his pants, drinking vodka.
And I like the film, too. A lively bit of entertainment it was worth spending time with.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021